Over the weekend, I watched the excellent new Mick Jenkins music video for “Drowning,” simultaneously taking in its great lyrics and powerful images. I recommend watching it now as it does his water[s] theme a great justice.
The video has stuck with me ever since. But so did a handful of comments by viewers who were virtually rolling their eyes. I usually blow past them like I do the obligatory Illuminati claims on YouTube videos but here were complaints by people who professed to be fans of Mick’s music yet either found this song to be an example of “Black supremacy,” Black Lives Matter propaganda, or an example of an unnecessarily political piece. To put it succinctly, a Black man’s art had become too Black for them.
This all left me to wonder, like I have many times, how one can subscribe to Black art yet deny the Black experience: its terror, its grandeur, and its beautiful resistance. Music videos rarely capture this so well.
It is easy to deride hip-hop and its fans if you have a distracted focus on the 2 Chainz's and Young Thug's of the world. However, true emcees and conscious rappers never went away and Mick Jenkins certainly belongs in these vaunted categories. I expect a desire for cultural proximity to Blackness without embracing it in the physical or social world from most casual music fans and those who do not get hip-hop. Not from avid listeners of a budding rap star.
This is undeniably a time of social turmoil and political activism when the cultural divide can be succinctly captured by whether one mentally places a “too” after #BlackLivesMatter or an “only” before it. Truly, how can any of us be taken aback that a young Black man from Chicago has a prescient voice on racial injustice? Perhaps the typical hip-hop fan has become too sated on the chocolate vernacular of hip-hop that the specific Blackness of conscious rap is now too cloying.
Rappers have always had their fingers on the pulse of society but lately there has been a surging tide of consciousness. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”, and all of "To Pimp A Butterfly," drips the juice of sweet and tart Black berries, J. Cole dropped “Be Free” shortly after Michael Brown’s death, The Game put out “Let Me Know” just last month, Chance The Rapper referenced the cover up following the killing of Laquan McDonald in his verse on “Ultralight Beam” on SNL in February, Vic Mensa released a whole album in response to the Flint water crisis and police brutality and called out Justin Timberlake for selectively putting on Black culture, YG said what most of us think of Donald Trump, and even Joe Budden took a break from shooting at Drake to rap over Beyoncé’s “Freedom” about Sandra Bland and plenty of other topics. It would not be a stretch to say any artist not putting out a public statement or record in hip-hop on these subjects deserves a fair bit of criticism, especially when mainstream pop artists like Miguel and Beyoncé are taking unequivocal stances.
Professional entertainers like Jesse Williams and professional athletes like Colin Kaepernick are making impassioned calls for justice. If you exist and have an Internet connection, you have seen the vitriolic reactions to Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem while he still sees racial injustice and police brutality. This issue persists in the public and private spheres of our lives and thus must be talked about and reckoned with.
This is all said to elucidate just how incomprehensible it is to be disgruntled by artists—particularly Black artists—speaking on the interlocked issues of racism, police brutality, and criminal injustice. It is akin to becoming tired of songs about redemption, pain, and love; artists will always depict the realities they experience and the futures they long for. Great art and hip-hop conveys humanity in moving ways.
Of course, hip-hop is not solely Black nor should it be. However, its roots and many of its greatest contributors are Black men and women. A devoted fan cannot just wear the dress of hip-hop culture yet balk when that culture speaks accurately and forcefully on its condition. Instead of becoming weary of hearing about it, we need to become weary of tolerating such a condition.
There has never been a drought for conscious rap but a lot of contemporary hip-hop fans are looking dehydrated and do not even know it.
For such fans, I suggest you heed the advice of Mr. Jenkins and drink more water. Or you might die.